Housewives Against Dictatorship: The Bolivian Hunger Strike of 1978

On December 28, 1977 four women and fourteen children arrived at the offices of Archbishop Nelson Manrique in La Paz, Bolivia and began a hunger strike in the highest capital city in the world. Aurora de Lora, Nely de Paniagua, Angélica de Flores, and Luzmila de Pimentel had travelled two hundred miles from the mining camp of Siglo XX to demand that the dictator Hugo Banzer release political prisoners and reinstate their husbands’ jobs in the mines. What started off as a small protest about workers’ rights soon became an international movement for a return to democracy in Bolivia. By January 18, 1978, at least 1,200 people across the country were conducting sympathy hunger strikes. Exiles and solidarity campaigns joined in from Lima, Mexico City, London, and Europe. At this point, the dictator Hugo Banzer, whose seven year regime had outlawed political parties, closed universities, imprisoned or exiled dissenters, and massacred hundreds of peasants and workers, capitulated to the demands of these four women and their young children.

How did four women from one of the most remote regions of Bolivia, demanding specific protections for their families, spark a national pro-democracy protest? These women were sophisticated political activists who used their status as mothers and wives to cast personal experiences of oppression as universal pleas for political reform. They used the anti-labor, paternalist language of the dictatorship against itself.

Hugo Banzer had come to power in 1971 calling for “Peace, Order, and Labor” in the country. The dictator cast workers as unruly children who had demanded too many rights and protections from the government and caused economic and social disorder.1 With a responsible military man in charge, Banzer argued that Bolivia would prosper as never before. Under the Banzer government, union activity was banned because it disrupted the proper functioning of the economy, and universities were closed because they had become nurseries for revolution.

And yet after seven years, most Bolivians were not prospering. Banzer´s allies were growing rich, but the middle classes, which had been sympathetic to curbing the power of unions in 1971, became tired of political repression and austerity by 1977. Indigenous agricultural communities had been hit incredibly hard by Banzer’s economic policies and increasingly violent response to dissent. When the women of the Siglo XX mines began their protest and began to publicly starve alongside their children, they became the embodiment of the political repression suffered by the entire nation. By playing on the paternalism of the regime, they showed Banzer’s promises of progress to be false.

The Housewives’ Committee

In a political climate where parties were outlawed and dissidents could be killed, only those imagined to be powerless could hope to stage a protest against the Banzer regime and survive. Although the press portrayed women of the hunger strike as grieving wives and mothers acting alone, these women were part of a sophisticated network of labor activists known as the Housewives’ Committee (Comité Amas de Casa). Founded in the early 1960s by women affiliated with the Bolivian Communist Party to protest a civilian government that claimed to support labor rights but was becoming increasingly repressive towards union activity, the Committee was a network of female activists in mining camps organized as a labor union.2

Housewives Committee leader Domitila Barrios de Chungara.
Housewives Committee leader Domitila Barrios de Chungara.

These women organized creative protests to protect their families at a time when their husbands ran the risk of assassination, prison, or exile for their political activity; they occupied company stores and hospitals when shipments of medicine and food did not arrive in the state-run mining camps and guarded hostages held by the mineworkers’ union against the threat of military occupation.3 By the 1970s, these women were connected with human rights organizations across Latin America and attracting attention from feminist organizations throughout the world.4

The Housewives Committee formed at a time when many members of the Bolivian public saw union activity as a threat to stability and prosperity. The protest tactics of the Committee sidestepped political opposition to union rights by casting working class demands as protections of innocent women and children. The Committee also used gender stereotypes to their advantage, because most of the public could not conceive of these women as experienced political activists. Under the glare of the camera, they were innocent housewives acting out of desperation.

At the same time, by organizing as a labor union themselves, the Housewives Committee insisted on a recognition of their domestic labor as valuable to both the mining company and their husbands.5 This dual organization, whereby the women spoke of class politics within their own communities but called for the defense of human rights with their political
allies, became crucial to the success of the protest.

From the Committee to the Bolivian Public

Although the four women initially entered the hunger strike alone, their Committee had been in active communication with other labor unions from the mines, urban centers, and the countryside as well as women’s groups, human rights and pro-democracy activists, and the Catholic Church. The strikers were also affiliated with several civilian parties whose leaders were unable to return to the country. Many of these groups had been planning a large action for the New Year, so were prepared to enter into solidarity actions once the government started to repress the four woman.6

On December 31, representatives of the Union of Bolivian Women (UMBO) and Bolivia’s Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (APDH), along with Housewives Committee leader Domitila Barrios de Chungara and Jesuit priest Luis Espinal, began a sympathy fast in the offices of the newspaper Presencia, which had been sympathetic to the strikers.7 Soon, there were parallel hunger strikes in union halls, churches, schools, and radio stations across the country. Unauthorized radio stations began carrying interviews and communiques between isolated groups of strikers, circulating a general sense of rebellion as the weeks wore on.8

Domitila de Chungara, Xavier Albo, Luis Espinal, Rufus and other human rights activists on hunger strike in 1977-1978.
Domitila de Chungara, Xavier Albo, Luis Espinal, Rufus and other human rights activists on hunger strike in 1977-1978.

Banzer attempted to discredit the strikers by accusing the women of child abuse for exposing their children to hunger.9 The biased tone of pro-government news reports simply made Banzer look petty and unsympathetic, especially given his refusal to negotiate with any representatives of the women.10 When, on January 17, the police raided several of the most prominent refuges of hunger strikers, the nation was watching as images circulated of military men dragging frail priests, starving mothers, and young children out of churches and schools. During this action, police killed a high school student engaged in a sympathy march. Public outcry was significant in response to these acts, and the Archbishop of La Paz threatened an interdiction on members of the government if they could not negotiate to resolve the conflict within 24 hours.

The following day, Banzer conceded to all of the demands of the strikers except removing the army from the mining centers and promised amnesty for anyone involved in the action. For the first time since 1971, Bolivians were legally allowed to participate in politics, and from that moment on, Hugo Banzer’s regime was guaranteed to fall.11

Politics by Other Means

Under Banzer, Bolivians were not allowed to be political. Banzer cast himself as the father of the nation, an arbiter of order and peace who made politics unnecessary. In this climate, organized groups of male workers could not count on the sympathy of the public, but mothers hoping to feed their children could. By making their poverty public, the women of the hunger strike suggested that the dictator was a bad father to the nation, and should no longer exercise the power of a patriarch. For this reason, although many of the initial demands of the hunger striking women were specific to mining communities (re-hiring workers fired for union activity, removal of the army from mining camps), the image of starving women and children struck a chord that resonated with a general desire for political opening throughout the nation.

These women publicly starving made visible the politics of austerity and poverty that had come along with Banzer’s vision of progress and belied any government attempt to cast itself as responsible and moral. When the women demanded the military leave their homes in the name of peace, the return of political parties in the name of order, and that their husbands be allowed to return to the mines in the name of work, what could Banzer do to silence them?

Notes

  1. James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-1982 (London: Verso, 1984), 141. Return to text.
  2. Maria Lagos, Nos Hemos Forjado Así: Al Rojo Vivo Y a Puro Golpe: Historias Del Comité de Amas de Casa de Siglo XX, 1. ed. (La Paz, Bolivia: Asociación Alicia “Por Mujeres Nuevas” Plural editores, 2006), 37. Return to text.
  3. Thomas C. Field Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 30. Return to text.
  4. Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Let Me Speak! Testimony Of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines, ed. Moema Viezzer, First Edition (Monthly Review Press, 1978), 194; Norma Chinchilla, “Working-Class Feminism: Domitila and the Housewives Committee,” Latin American Perspectives 6, no. 3 (1979): 87; “Domitila: An Interview,” Spare Rib, September 1980. Return to text.
  5. Domitila Barrios de Chungara, La Mujer Y La Organizacion (La Paz: Centro las casas, 1980). Return to text.
  6. Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Aqui Tambien, Domitila!: Testimonios (Historia Inmediata) (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1985). Return to text.
  7. Jorge Mansilla T, Huelga de Hambre: Bolivia, Mujeres Mineras, Victoria Popular (Lima, Peru: s.n., 1978). Return to text.
  8. Jean-Pierre Lavaud, La dictadura minada la huelga de hambre de las mujeres mineras, Bolivia, 1977-1978 (La Paz, Bolivia: IFEA : CESU-UMSS : Plural Editores, 2003). Return to text.
  9. Marcia Stephenson, Gender and Modernity in Andean Bolivia (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 187. Return to text.
  10. Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins, 140. Return to text.
  11. Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos de Bolivia, Huelga de Hambre (La Paz: Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos en Bolivia, 1978), 280. Return to text.

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